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Driving Positive Change Through Research and Consulting

Tuesday, September 5, 2017  
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Making a difference, even in a small way motivates most working professionals, and is a driving vision behind most successful businesses. Lansing-based firm Public Policy Associates, Inc. (PPA) is in the business of making a difference by helping to shape better public policies and drive positive change around the country. PPA serves state, local and federal agencies as well as foundations and nonprofit organizations by providing independent research and consulting services.

“We help clients through our research to develop better policies and programs,” said PPA co-owner Virginia Orabone. “We use a variety of research techniques including interviews, focus groups and site visits to evaluate what a client is doing and recommend improvements and identify best practices.”

PPA was founded in 1991 by former state lawmaker Jeffrey D. Padden. Colleen Graber, Virginia Orabone, and Paul Elam, Ph.D. form the executive team of PPA and have each spent more than 10 years with the company. Graber and Orabone purchased the firm from Padden in 2014. Elam serves as company president. The co-owners laud Padden for his vision in building a firm that has developed a strong reputation nationally. Since taking over the company, the executive team has been driving several key core values, including teamwork, creativity, a commitment to quality and diversity.

“There are not many public policy firms that have diversity at the core of what they do,” said Elam. “There is a business case for diversity. We believe we can provide richer insights for our clients. We have invested extensive time in retreats and professional development in order to ensure our staff understands the importance of utilizing a racial equity and culturally responsive lens in our work.”

PPA delivers insights and strategies in four core areas: education, workforce development, criminal and juvenile justice and healthy communities. Though located in the heart of downtown Lansing and serving local and state agencies as well as foundations and non-profits throughout Michigan, PPA has branched out nationwide. Approximately 50 percent of the company’s business is now conducted outside Michigan. PPA is currently working on projects in California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. PPA is smaller than many of the firms it competes against when bidding for work, however, the company regularly finds itself coming out on top.

“There are a limited number of companies that do what we do,” said Orabone. “For one of the bigger jobs we won, there were eight or nine companies competing in the nation. We were told our experience in workforce development made us the clear choice for the job.”

PPA has a long history in working with clients in workforce development. Graber noted that the company’s approach to working with clients helps them stand out, even in the face of competition.

“We propose rigorous research designs and sound work plans, but I think part of why we win is how we customize our approach for their particular project,” said Graber. “We listen to clients and apply our understanding of their needs to determine methods and products.”

The PPA team has intentionally focused on building a strong national network and emerging as thought leaders through written work and presentations at national conferences.

The company finds itself working with clients tackling some of the nation’s most important policy issues related to food access, workforce development, criminal justice and education.

Among its current projects is one in which PPA is working with the federal Office of Justice and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency to improve the human service delivery response process with young people who grow up in traumatized communities.

“There are many kids who experience abuse, neglect and death, and they begin to manifest certain behaviors as a result of that trauma,” said Elam. “Unfortunately, the way our system has developed, they deal with the current, visible behavior. Emerging research shows the underlying cause of those behaviors is highly associated with trauma. We’re currently working with Chapin Hall and three states around the country, using what we learn to develop pilot programs in Michigan to improve that care system.”

PPA is also working the Michigan Department of Education around the Every Student Succeeds Act. PPA is assisting with stakeholder engagement as the state formulates the details of its plan. Current efforts are focused on gathering parent input on the forthcoming school-level transparency dashboard.

“Having that parental voice recognized and involved is an important step in making sure the dashboard is useful for the public,” said Graber.

In the workforce area, PPA has had an opportunity to evaluate projects funded by Workforce Innovation Fund grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. Serving as an evaluator has given PPA the opportunity to give insights into what approaches are most successful and to add to the body of knowledge in the field.

“Evaluation is critical to supporting ongoing improvement of our programs and systems. We translate our findings into actionable recommendations,” said Graber.

The type of work in which PPA is involved day-to-day serves to motivate the firm’s highly talented team. The ownership team says the PPA staff is key to their success.

“In my 12 years here, people have come and gone, but there are a lot of people that have been here the whole time,” said Orabone. “Our staff makes great contributions towards winning new projects and delivering high-value products.”

One of the challenges for firms like PPA is the limited number of college students that are focusing on public policy work as a career opportunity. Like many other businesses, the availability of talent is a major concern for PPA. Recent statistics show that of the few students majoring in the public policy arena at Michigan universities, the majority will leave Michigan to work, and half of those remaining will exit the state within five years. One of the strategies PPA has employed to attack the talent challenge is to bring one or two students into the company each semester. The internships have helped some students to gain acceptance to elite graduate schools that include Stanford and Princeton.

“Just exposing students to the ability to work in this space and have them consider this path is a good thing,” said Elam.

Despite the company’s consistent success, the ownership group emphasizes that they will never take that success for granted. PPA recently completed a three-year strategic plan. Elam says the focus is on continued growth.

“Every week some opportunity comes before us,” said Elam. “We have to decide what to pursue, what not to pursue and where we have an opportunity make some positive change.”

Shifting customer needs may cause PPA to develop expertise in new areas in the years to come. Technology will also drive a number of changes in the way business is conducted. The PPA team expects they will continue to thrive through creative, responsive approaches to client needs. This commitment will drive their success and allow them to continue to make a difference in the programs, policies, and systems that affect daily lives.

Click here to download the September issue of FOCUS.

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